Social revolution

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This article is about revolution that reforms existing class structure. For 1959-1961 Revolution in Rwanda or Winds of Destruction, see Rwandan Revolution.

The term social revolution or social revolt may be used in varying ways.

Social Revolutions[edit]

The term “social revolution” is commonly misused by those who do not have experience in the field of comparative politics. There are many misconceptions about the meaning of the term and many more misunderstandings of it. Throughout this paper several of each will be identified and dealt with accordingly. The differences between a social revolutions, coup d’états, guerilla insurgencies, rebellions, protests, and liberal revolutions will be discussed. After sorting out the misconceptions, the misunderstandings will be handled with an explanation of what a social revolution is and the different ways one is studied. Many scholars have written about the topic of social revolutions; Barrington Moore, Charles Tilly, Jeff Goodwin, William H. Sewell, Jr., Samuel P. Huntington, and Theda Skocpol are some of the more prominent theorists on the subject. Each has a different way of interpreting a social revolution. Their conflicting theories will be summarized so that a broad definition of a social revolution can be constructed that covers as many of the leading theories as possible.

Misconceptions about Social Revolutions[edit]

The general public has many misconceptions about what a social revolution is. These misconceptions are because of the word revolution being used to describe a large array of events. When a foreign government makes a radical change in leadership, e.g., a right-wing extremist takes power in a historically left-wing state, the change is called a revolution for the new leader’s political base by some media outlet, or blogger. This use of the word “revolution” and the general understanding of the word “social” leads some to believe that a “social revolution” is a relatively extreme change in social setting. By this misunderstanding the now normal use of social media instead of writing a letter or calling a friend can refer to a social revolution. Some know that a social revolution is a political event. They know that it involves the changing of a regime in a state, but little more. These individuals classify events like coup d’états, guerilla insurgencies, rebellions, protests, and liberal revolutions as social revolutions. There are also those who use the terms “revolution” and “social revolution” interchangeably. These are all misconceptions that need to be corrected. After reading this, the definition of a social revolution should be clear. Both of the previously identified misconceptions are partially correct. A social revolution does involve a change in social norms and it is a political event, but it is much more.

To start derailing the train of misconceptions let us start by identifying political events that result in a regime change. The first thing that comes to mind is a coup d’état. A coup is violent, fast, and results in a regime change, so why is a coup not considered a revolution? A coup is a form of political violence (Soderlund 1970). It is one of the two main forms of political violence (the other, a guerilla insurgency, will be covered later) (Soderlund 1970). A coup is a very secretive event (Soderlund 1970). For a coup to be successful it must also be executed quickly with a considerable amount of aggression (Soderlund 1970). The goal of a coup is to remove the key personnel of the current regime and replace them (Soderlund 1970). Usually a coup is performed by those already in a position of authority. One who is either a government official of one who is linked to the higher level of a regime is usually the mastermind of a coup (Soderlund 1970). The characteristics of a coup, speed and aggression, make it hard to defend against (Soderlund 1970). Another popular form of political violence can also result in a regime change: a guerilla insurgency. Che Guevara is easily the most famous supporter of a guerilla insurgency (Soderlund 1970). Guevara is often called a revolutionary, but was he? A guerilla insurgency is a: “quasi-military activity which is strategically employed to bring about collapse of the incumbent regime in a given country” (Soderlund 1970, 344). It should not be confused with guerilla warfare, whose focus is attacking military instillations (Soderlund 1970). A guerilla insurgency is used to seize power through organized violence, guerilla warfare, in a long, drawn out conflict (Soderlund 1970). The contrast to the characteristics that makes a coup hard to stop makes a guerilla insurgency easy to stop (Soderlund 1970). There have been eleven attempted guerilla insurgencies since World War II; only five have been successful (Soderlund 1970). The success rate is largely because of the buildup required for a guerilla insurgency (Soderlund 1970). One can be spotted and squashed long before it is a threat (Soderlund 1970).

Regimes can also be changed as a result of an open rebellion or protest. These are the two basic kinds of open contention to a regime (Lichbach et al. 1981). A rebellion is characterized by an armed conflict between a rebel group and the current government (Lichbach et al. 1981). Rebellions can lead to civil war (Lichbach et al. 1981). The rebels are usually the minority of the population (Lichbach et al. 1981). Politically the rebellion wants a policy changed, and/or a regime change (Lichbach et al. 1981). Some rebellions can last a long time (Lichbach et al. 1981). A Protest also seeks to change policy (Lichbach et al. 1981). Protests tend to be short lived and the only violence is from members of radical groups associated to the protest (Lichbach et al. 1981). The final method of regime change, and closest thing to a social revolution, is the liberal revolution. The liberal revolution is one of the two types of revolution (social revolution being the other) (Snyder 1999). So what is a revolution? Robert S. Snyder cites Forrest Colburn’s definition: “revolution is the sudden, violent, and drastic substitution of one group governing a territorial political entity for another group formerly excluded from the government, and an ensuing assault on the state and society for the purpose of radically transforming society” (Snyder 1999, 7). By this definition it should be noted that coup d’états, guerilla insurgencies, rebellions, and protests are not even forms of revolution for one reason or another. Some examples of liberal revolutions are the American Revolutions and some Eastern European countries after 1989 (Snyder 1999). Liberal revolutions and social revolutions differ most in the goals of the revolution (Ackerman 1992). A liberal revolution strives for “diversity of human aspiration” (Ackerman 1992, 12). Other characteristics are the idea that social justice through equal opportunity and the support for individual growth and progress (Ackerman 1992). A liberal revolution is also usually less violent than a social revolution (Ackerman 1992).

Misunderstandings of Social Revolutions[edit]

A social revolution can be interpreted differently depending on which prominent theorist one chooses to use as a basis of understanding. To start clearing water, let us begin by defining a social revolution. A social revolution is characterized by rapid, fundamental change of socio-economic and political institutions and large-scale class upheaval (Skocpol 1976). By this definition it is clear why coup d’états, guerilla insurgencies, rebellions, protests, and liberal revolutions are different from social revolutions. A coup d’état is performed by the upper members of a society and often only results in a change of ruler (Soderlund 1970); thus there is no fundamental change and class upheaval. Guerilla insurgencies are anything but rapid (Soderlund 1970). Neither rebellion nor protest results in a fundamental change to socio-economic and political institutions (Lichbach et al. 1981). A liberal revolution has different goals than a social revolution and there is usually no large-scale class upheaval (Ackerman 1992). From this definition of social revolution it is clear that there have been very few. Only a handful of them have ever taken place: France 1789, Russia 1917, China 1911-49, and Iran 1979 (Skocpol 1976) (Sewell, 1985). The Some common characteristics of each of these revolutions have been the emphasis on material equality of all, the eventual consolidation of power in very authoritarian and in some cases totalitarian regimes, and domestic violence (Snyder 1999). Social revolutions are study by several prominent political scientists. Theda Skocpol’s comparative historical method is the industry standard (Sewell 1985).

Competing Theories in the analysis of a Social revolution[edit]

Theda Skocpol is two of the most prominent social scientists who has studied social revolution. Skocpol treats social revolutions as theoretical subjects and to test an hypothesis about them one must compare them to one another (Skocpol 1976). This is because a social revolution is too complex to build a model for because there are far too many variables and not enough actual cases (Skocpol 1976). Skocpol is largely concerned with why social revolutions occur and if they can be predicted. She observes that in the French, Russian, and Chinese cases that a series of three events took place: the collapse of the old regime, peasant rebellion, and a small elite political movement (Skocpol 1976). The first sign of a social revolution is recognized by an “overtly political crisis” (Skocpol 1979, 7) e.g., the calling of the Estates General in the French case (Skocpol 1979). Then conflict between organized political groups get involved and the old regime take place ending with a new regime taking power (Skocpol 1979). The overt political crises that tend to precede a social revolution are “incidental triggers or as little more than epiphenomenal indicators of more fundamental contradictions or strains located in the social structure of the old regime” (Skocpol 1979, 7). The various political groups are seen to be “representatives of social forces” (Skocpol 1979, 7). And the new regime is an “expression of the interests of whatever socio economic or sociocultural force was deemed victorious in the revolutionary conflicts” (Skocpol 1979, 7). To understand the transformation that occurs because of a social revolution one must first consider the state to be a macro structure (Skocpol 1979). A state is a “set of administrative, policing, and military organization headed, and more or less well coordinated by, and an executive authority” (Skocpol 1979, 12). Most states are based on “class-divided socioeconomic dynamics” (Skocpol 1979, 12). When the old regime becomes more undermined by class struggle and the administrative capacity gets increasingly disorganized; plus, the regime’s inability to handle geopolitical pressure leads to a revolution (Skocpol 1979). The regime’s administrative capacity and its armies disintegrate, opening the door for a social revolution lead by a revolt from a lower class (Skocpol 1979). This revolt from a lower class is a peasant class revolting against the landowning class (Skocpol 1988). The debate for various reasons that one social revolution resulted in a different regime than another is outlined in Theda Skocpol’s essay Social Revolutions and Mass Military Mobilization. Skocpol outlines the Marxist analysis that the greater role of the bourgeois class in France and the proletarian revolts in Russia as the reasons that they resulted in different regimes (1988). In Skocpol’s analysis she focuses on the struggle between classes (i.e., peasants versus landowners), the struggle between the classes and the state, and the struggle between the state and other states in the international community (Sewell 1985).Skocpol rejects the idea the ideology plays a role in the outcome of social revolution. William H. Sewell, Jr., quotes Skocpol: “any line of reasoning that treats revolutionary ideologies as blueprints for revolutionary outcomes cannot sustain scrutiny” (Sewell 1985, 58). Sewell is a major opponent to Skocpol on this topic.

William H. Sewell, Jr., is a major critic of Skocpol because of their different views of the role of ideology in a social revolution. The topic of ideology is the only topic that the two but heads over (Sewell 1985). Sewell agrees that a social revolution is focused around the struggle between classes, between the classes and the state, and between the state and other states in the international community (Sewell 1985). Sewell’s problem with Skocpol is that “she has not recognized the autonomous power of ideology in the revolutionary process” (Sewell 1985, 58). Sewell agrees that the ideology of the vanguard cannot be used to predict the outcome of a revolution (Sewell 1985). Sewell argues that ideology is important because it plays a major role in how a social revolution unfolds (Sewell 1985). Sewell says that the difference in the outcome of social revolutions is because of the ideological structure of the various social classes (Sewell 1985). “The Whole of an ideological structure… is never present in the consciousness of any single actor… An ideological structure is not some self-consistent “blueprint” but the outcome of the contradictory or antagonistic action of a large number of actors or groups of actors” (Sewell 1985, 61). This quote helps with the understanding of Sewell’s perspective. The ideology of the French peasants was not the same as their Russian or Chinese counterparts. Nor was ideology of the radical or moderate groups of France, Russia, or China. These differences lead to the different outcomes according to Sewell (1985). Ideology is transformed by a social revolution; it is transmitted from one actor or group to another (Sewell 1985).

Another critic of Skocpol is Barrington Moore. Moore’s method is centered on why people “submit without explicit moral protest to persistent social maltreatment” (This is how social scientist John Dunn interprets it) (Dunn 1982, 307). Moore is also concerned with the formation and replication of cultures of submission (Dunn 1982). Through these topics of human nature Moore analyses the cause of social revolutions (Dunn 1982). This method seems very strange to many who are not familiar with Moore’s work (Dunn 1982). Moore wants to understand why people do not stand up for themselves and why these people do not rebel (Dunn 1982). As John Dunn says: “Moore’s answers to the question of why men don’t rebel are as sensible as they are surprising: that for the most part, collectively if not individually, they find social life most of the time little worse than they expect, that they can seldom see very clearly precisely how to revolt at all effectively, and that they… lack optimism as to the prospective outcome of doing so” (1982, 308). This answer explains why there have been so few social revolutions. If the average person does not foresee the success of a major movement then that person will not see any benefit from joining the movement. Dunn also interprets Moore to say that eventually a society becomes desensitized to oppression and the society loses hope of rebelling (Dunn 1982).

Others differ from Skocpol in the method of classifications of social revolutions. Robert Dix and Samuel P. Huntington are two such examples. Robert Dix expanded on Huntington’s classification of revolutions. Huntington had two classifications: Eastern and Western revolutions (Dix 1983). Dix added a third to the list: Latin American (Dix 1983). Huntington and Dix agree that a revolution can occur in a transitional or modernizing society (Dix 1983). The difference of each classification lies in the type of old regime and the order in which three stages occur: (1) the old regime dissolves, (2) new institutions are established, and (3) the flow of the revolutionary movement (i.e., starting in a rural environment and moving to an urban one or vice versa) (Dix 1983). In a Western revolution the old regime is usually a traditional one, like a monarchy (Dix 1983). A Western revolution starts with the collapse of the old regime, and then new institutions are set up (Dix 1983). The revolutionary movement starts in the urban centers of a society and eventually spread to the rural areas (Dix 1983). Huntington’s description of an Eastern revolution is very different from a Western one (Dix 1983). An Eastern revolution starts in the rural areas and moves toward the urban centers (Dix 1983). The old regime is often seen as a modernizing regime, like a dictatorship (Dix 1983). The different revolutionary factions set up their new institutions, and then the old regime dissolves in an Eastern revolution (Dix 1983). Robert Dix adds a third classification that has characteristics of both the Eastern and Western revolutions; one he calls a Latin American revolution (Dix 1983). These Latin American revolutions start in the country side and move toward the urban areas, like an Eastern revolution (Dix 1983). The old regimes were also seen as modernizing (Dix 1983). As in Western revolutions the old regimes dissolve before new institutions are formed (Dix 1983). Dix uses the Cuban Revolution and the Nicaraguan Revolution as two examples (1983).

Jeff Goodwin and Charles Tilly are two other prominent social scientists who study social revolutions and share each other’s methods of interpreting them (Goodwin 1997). They use a state centered method of analysis (Goodwin 1997). To Goodwin and Tilly the most important point of their approach are “processes whereby states… shape enable, or constrain economic, associational, cultural, and even socio-psychological phenomena” (Goodwin 1997, 9). For Goodwin and Tilly this is more important than the other aspects of social revolutions: social classes, culture, or social psychology (Goodwin 1997). Goodwin claims that social revolutions only show up after the sixteenth century because that is when the “state” was formed (Goodwin 1997).

The misconceptions and misunderstandings in regard to social revolutions are largely due to the lack of access to academic material by the general population. Many of the competing ideas and theories have been outlined to allow for a clearer understanding about social revolutions. Coup d’états, guerrilla insurgencies, rebellion, protests, and liberal revolutions are not social revolutions. There have only been a handful of successful social revolutions: the French revolution, Russian revolution, Chinese revolution, and Iranian Revolution. Different social scientists have differing ways of approaching a social revolution; Barrington Moore, Charles Tilly, Jeff Goodwin, William H. Sewell, Jr., Samuel P. Huntington, and Theda Skocpol are some of the more prominent ones.


In libertarian socialist and anarchist parlance, a "social revolution" is a bottom-up, as opposed to a vanguard party-led or purely political, revolution aiming to reorganize all of society (see Spanish Revolution). In the words of Alexander Berkman, "social revolution means the reorganization of the industrial, economic life of the country and consequently also of the entire structure of society."[2] More generally, the term "social revolution" may be used to refer to a massive change in society, for instance the French Revolution, the American Civil Rights Movement and the 1960 hippie or counterculture reformation on religious belief, personal identity, freedom of speech, music and arts, fashion, alternative technology or environmentalism and decentralised media.[3]

In the Trotskyist movement, the term "social revolution" refers to an upheaval in which existing property relations are smashed. Examples include the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and the Cuban Revolution, as both caused capitalist (and in some cases pre-capitalist) property relations to turn into post-capitalist property relations as they operated by plan rather than by market. Social revolutions is contrasted with purely political revolutions in which the government is replaced, or the form of government altered, but in which property relations are predominantly left intact. Social revolutions do not imply necessarily that the working class as a whole has control over the production and distribution of capital and goods - in many countries this control passed to a new elite in the form of a communist party - they just mean that the market is no longer used, and that the capitalist class has been expropriated.

In Islamic thinking, especially in the Shi'a school of thought, a social revolution is needed when any form of government is tyrannic and despotic to its people. The underlying concept of Islamic Revolution maintains that moral freedom is the most important aspect of a human's fundamental needs.

Theda Skocpol in her article "France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions" states that social revolution is a "combination of thoroughgoing structural transformation and massive class upheavals" (175).[citation needed] She comes to this definition by combining Samuel P. Huntington's definition that it "is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activities and policies"[citation needed] and Lenin's that revolutions are "the festivals of the oppressed...[who act] as creators of a new social order" (Skocpol 175)[citation needed]. She also states that this definition excludes many revolutions, because they fail to meet either or both of the two parts of this definition.

[4] Social revolutions are distinct from coup d'etats, from insurrections, from mutiny, and from rebellions. As Theda Skocpol a leading figure in the literature indicates social revolutions are rare and transformative events that fundamentally alter class structures, states organizations, and dominant ideologies.

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dix, Robert H. 1983. “The Variety of Revolution.” Comparative Politics,15, 3: 281-294 Dunn, John. 1982. “Understanding Revolutions.” Ethics 92, 2: 299-315 Goodwin, Jeff. 1997. “State-centered Approach to Social Revolution: Strengths & Limits of a Theoretical Tradition.” In Theorizing Revolutions, ed. John Foran. London: Routledge Lichbach, Mark Irving and Ted Robert Gurr. 1981. “The Conflict Process: A Formal Model.” Journal of Conflict Resoluion, 25:3. <> Sewell, William H. Jr. 1985. “Ideologies & Social Revolutions: Reflections on the French Case.” The Journal of Modern History, 57, 1:57-85 Skocpol, Theda. 1976. “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 18, 2: 175-210 Skocpol, Theda. 1979. “States and Revolution: Old Regimes and Revolutionary Crises in France, Russia, and China.” Theory and Society, 7, ½: 7-95 Skocpol, Theda. 1988. “Social Revolutions and Mass Military Mobilization.” World Politics 40, 2: 147-168 Snyder, Robert S. 1999. “The End of Revolution?” The Review of Politics 61, 1: 5-28 Soderlund, Walter C. 1970. “An Analysis of the Guerilla Insurgency and Coup d’état as Techniques of Indirect Aggression.” International Studies Quarterly 14, 4: 335-360
  2. ^ Alexander Berkman, wikisource:Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism/Chapter 25
  3. ^ The 1960s Cultural Revolution —
  4. ^ ◦Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., p.3.